Learning Horrors of War from Vets

Americans shed some guilt for sending young soldiers to war by saying “thank you for your service” but it’d be better to ask vets about their war experiences, says ex-U.S. Army chaplain Chris J. Antal who served in Afghanistan.

By the Rev. Chris J. Antal

Veteran’s Day too often only serves to construct and maintain a public narrative that glorifies war and military service and excludes the actual experience of the veteran. This public narrative is characterized by core beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and the world that most citizens readily accept without examination.

The U.S. public narrative reconciles deep religiosity with a penchant for violence with an often unexamined American National Religion. The core beliefs of this religion include the unholy trinity of governmental theism (One Nation Under God, In God We Trust, etc.), global military supremacy, and capitalism as freedom. These core beliefs provide many U.S. citizens with a broad sense of meaning and imbue the public narrative with thematic coherence.

U.S. Marines patrol street in Shah Karez in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 10. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Storm)

U.S. Marines patrol street in Shah Karez in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Robert Storm)

War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, as Christopher Hedges wrote. Yet this kind of coherence has a moral and psychological cost. The consequence of an unexamined faith in American National Religion is a moral dualism that exaggerates U.S. goodness and innocence and projects badness on an “other” who we then demonize as the enemy and kill.

Walter Wink described this moral dualism as a “theology of redemptive violence,” the erroneous belief that somehow good violence can save us from bad violence.

Veteran’s Day, in the context of American National Religion, enables selective remembering, self-deception, and projected valorization. In short, it serves to perpetuate lies in order to avoid facing uncomfortable truths about who U.S. citizens are and what kind of people we are becoming.

Imagine a Veteran’s Day where citizens gathered around veterans and asked, “what’s your story?” Citizens who risk this bold step begin to bridge the empathy gap between civilians and veterans and open up the path for adaptive change and post-traumatic growth.

I believe one citizen who approaches a veteran with the invitation, “what’s your story?” does more for the veteran than a thousand patriotic platitudes like “Thank you for your service” could ever do.

Only a First Step

Asking the question is only the first step. A citizen who wants to give back to veterans should cultivate narrative competence, the capacity to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved by the stories one hears or reads. The voice of veterans, if we open our ears to hear them, often provides an essential counter-narrative to the U.S. public narrative.

Coffins of dead U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2006. (U.S. government photo)

Coffins of dead U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2006. (U.S. government photo)

Violent, sudden, or seemingly meaningless deaths, the kind of deaths often experienced by veterans, can make the world appear dangerous, unpredictable, or unjust. The experience of warfare can often undercut our sense of meaning and coherence and shatter assumptions. Because of this many veterans carry a depth of pain that is unimaginable to many citizens.

The voice of the veterans often reveals uncomfortable truths and invites collective examination of core beliefs and assumptions, especially those that form the bedrock of American National Religion.

Imagine a Veteran’s Day where communities join together for authentic dialogue between veterans and civilians. Such a gathering would empower veterans to share the kind of stories that would help the community face real problems. What new story might emerge in the process? How might we become a better people as a result?

The Reverend Chris Antal was a chaplain with the US Army in Kandahar, Afghanistan and later in the US Army Reserve.  While in Afghanistan, he delivered a sermon that said, “We have sanitized killing and condoned extrajudicial assassinations…” He nearly lost his job.  This past April, in an open letter to President Obama, he resigned his commission in protest over the use of drones, nuclear proliferation and our government’s claims of impunity to international law.  He is minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rock Tavern, New York. More background here.) 

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17 comments for “Learning Horrors of War from Vets

  1. Michael J. Lloyd
    November 9, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    I believe that he’s right on the money. When I came back to the States in November 1970 from Vietnam, my own family didn’t even want to hear what I had been doing, let alone the people that I met every day. The war was all built on lies, and was being prosecuted poorly, and lots of veterans knew it but couldn’t tell anyone about what they knew because no one wanted to hear the truth. Consequently, it continued for another five years. I had such a sense of culture shock when I came back that I just couldn’t relate anymore to the civilian population. I felt that they were essentially clueless about the most basic issues of life and death, not just about the war, but about life and death anywhere. They were all disconnected from reality. The kind of reality a soldier comes to know when he’s confronted with the prospect of quick and violent death is a deeper understanding of actual REALITY on a moment-to-moment basis (Be Here Now). This is what changes a person forever, and what the veteran can perhaps communicate to civilians, if they are willing to really listen to him, and absorb his experiences.

    • Herman
      November 10, 2016 at 10:11 am

      “The U.S. public narrative reconciles deep religiosity with a penchant for violence with an often unexamined American National Religion. The core beliefs of this religion include the unholy trinity of governmental theism (One Nation Under God, In God We Trust, etc.), global military supremacy, and capitalism as freedom. These core beliefs provide many U.S. citizens with a broad sense of meaning and imbue the public narrative with thematic coherence.”

      I stopped reading at that paragraph. Wow. Powerful. On target. Encapsulating.

      Watch any football game on Saturday or Sunday and you will see and hear what the author says.

      I will now go back and read the rest of the article.

      Finished the article and bio. Hope his preaching goes beyond the choir.

    • robert john grosch
      November 13, 2016 at 11:11 am

      Rev i am proud of you

  2. Bill Bodden
    November 9, 2016 at 11:42 pm

    Another vital step is to get to young people before they join the parade to become veterans and to explain to them the realities of wars that are almost always based on lies. There may be individual acts of heroism during a war, but wars are predominantly barbaric and the participants barbarians.

    ““Freedom isn’t Free” in the Land of the Delusional & the Home of the Duped” by Mark Ashwill – http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/11/08/freedom-isnt-free-in-the-land-of-the-delusional-the-home-of-the-duped/

  3. evelync
    November 10, 2016 at 12:58 am

    Along side a pledge to defend the constitution, elected officials should be required to sign a pledge that they will not send American soldiers into harm’s way unless the country is under threat of imminent invasion – in other words a real threat, not a made up contrived threat or a regime change.
    And there should be serious criminal consequences.

    • J. D.
      November 10, 2016 at 8:40 am

      That requirement is already part of the UN charter, as well as settled law for which we rightly prosecuted Nazis at Nuremburg. Moreover, the Constitution, Article l, Section 8, specifies that it is solely within Congress’ power to declare war, a responsibility which it has failed to enforce. Both of these mandates have been repeatedly violated, especially by the past two administrations.

      • evelync
        November 10, 2016 at 11:09 am

        Thank you.
        I guess we have a lawless executive branch and a weak legislative branch.
        Why hasn’t this violation been taken before the courts?

    • Sam
      November 10, 2016 at 9:38 am

      The Constitution grants no military powers to the federal government beyond repelling invasions and suppressing insurrections, letters of marque (arrest abroad), and letters of reprisal (against a militant rogue such as pirate ship). The federal government has no foreign war power except by treaty such as NATO, and we don’t need it.

      We should extend no military force abroad under treaties, except via the UN in UN uniforms under UN command. Aristotle warned of the right-wing tyrant over democracy, who must have foreign enemies to pose as protectors and accuse their moral superiors of disloyalty. Most of them should be turned over to the ICC or prosecuted here as criminals.

      • evelync
        November 10, 2016 at 11:14 am

        Thank you.
        So, in your opinion, is our court system helpless to correct these executive branch violations?

  4. Zachary Smith
    November 10, 2016 at 2:17 am

    The consequence of an unexamined faith in American National Religion is a moral dualism that exaggerates U.S. goodness and innocence and projects badness on an “other” who we then demonize as the enemy and kill.

    This is a perfectly true statement, but it describes a human attitude by no means unique to U.S Americans. Here is the record of an interview with Goering after WW2 had ended.

    “We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

    “Why, of course, the people don’t want war,” Goering shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”

    “There is one difference,” I pointed out. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”

    “Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” “

    I can’t fault that analysis. When it is necessary to send soldiers into combat, it’s our duty to train them as well as possible. To supply them as well as possible. To provide the best leaders possible.

    When the war is over, the mentally and physically wounded ought to be provided with the best care possible to the end of their days. The US has at times failed at all of those responsibilities in previous wars. Lately the gimmick is to avoid using US soldiers at all and instead to hire mercenaries. People who can be discarded like a used bit of waste paper. I do wonder where these impoverished and/or fanatical mercenaries belong in Rev. Chris J. Antal’s world view.

    We need to abolish the conditions which lead to war. IMO the main one is overpopulation. Because of the religious crazies and the “Greed Is Good” folks, I see no prospect of this happening. The moral lepers who recruit desperately poor men from Afghanistan, Iraq, or other places see them as a ticket to making more money. Or as steps on the ladder to greater power.

    Walter Wink {Walter Wink (May 21, 1935 – May 10, 2012)} described this moral dualism as a “theology of redemptive violence,” the erroneous belief that somehow good violence can save us from bad violence.

    I looked up Walter Wink as best I could. Based on the few things I found about him at Google Books and other sites, the man struck me as an ignorant fanatic. I’d welcome evidence to the contrary, but that’s how I see it now. My search focused on Hitler, and Wink simply danced around the issue. In my opinion that’s just not acceptable.

    There may not be such a thing as “good violence”, but there is most surely a time for “necessary violence”. To those we force – or hire – into that latter situation, we have an obligation to provide for those who survive. And we must also honor the dead. Examples:

    “A Battle Prayer”
    by Scott Tackett Sr.

    Young Warriors;
    Should fate find you on the battlefield,
    May your cause be a just one. May your courage not falter.
    May you show mercy to your enemies.
    May your efforts bring the blessings of peace.
    May you be triumphant and earn victory. May your sacrifice be always appreciated.
    May you endure the conflict unharmed.
    Should you be harmed,
    May your wounds heal.
    Should you perish in the struggle,
    May God embrace you and find a Place for you in his Kingdom.

    And from the Kohima war cemetery in India:

    “When you go home, tell them of us and say
    For their tomorrow, we gave our today. “

  5. Robert
    November 10, 2016 at 10:47 am

    I agree with your story. I commend you for your bravery to speak truth to power. The poor join for a job only to be used by the powerful to do the dirty work of aggression, murder, and occupation. Let’s broaden our view with some further reading ;
    https://lewrockwell.com/2016/07/laurence-m-vance/military-unholy-institution/

  6. evelync
    November 10, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    Thank you Reverend Antal for your courage to tell the truth in Afghanistan and your nobility and honor to resign your commission over the sanitized murder we commit with drones. You are a hero. At the time, you should have receive solidarity from others. Alas the “others” lacked your courage and awareness.

    Re: “Walter Wink described this moral dualism as a “theology of redemptive violence,” the erroneous belief that somehow good violence can save us from bad violence.” I’m not sure that the people who are willing, anxious to perpetrate the “good” violence are capable, in the moment, of thinking that concept through. If they were capable of examining their behavior deeply enough to ask themselves that question it might stop them in their tracks.
    When W was selling the Iraq War, after 9/11, I tried to engage people at the grocery store to point out that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. I was stopped in my tracks by an unlikely? person – a hefty, powerful looking middle aged man who appeared to be physically able to defend himself but who was almost hysterical with fear and unwilling to talk about it. He was absolutely certain that violence was the answer. He was beyond reason.

    I chalk all this up to something easier for me to understand even though it sounds ridiculous even as I write it.
    Since my childhood many moons ago, I related irrational human behavior – such as social group mindless chatter and war like aggression – to the behavior of ants. There’s a mindless comfort zone for humans, I think, that subjects us to irrational conformity with destructive behavior. Ant colonies also wage war to take over territory, I think. And I assume they are mindless……

    I highly recommend to anyone who likes music the 2012 production on DVD of Wagner’s Lohengren performed in Bayreuth Germany, conducted by Andris Nelsons.
    The music is gorgeous (for me anyways) but the relevant part to this discussion is that the performance is not done in a traditional way. The King of the region is depicted as terrified and mad and war like and he visits Brabant to advise his subjects that it’s time for another war – some excuse is given. His subjects are all costumed as rats. Some of the rats are not too happy to hear that they are about to be sent off into battle and try to kill the King and are hauled off. There is a video screen suspended at the back of the performance during orchestral interludes with a cartoon depiction of the rat behavior, clinging like frightened children to the King, who is depicted as a mindless galloping dog pushing ahead until he falls apart from exhaustion.
    The artistic director interviewed on the DVD said he was trying to make Wagner easy for the viewer/listener to understand and watch because he thought people are afraid and find Wagner unapproachable. He finds the humor in Wagner and makes it quite enjoyable visually.
    The rats aren’t stupid, they are just frightened.
    Of course there’s also another big story line that is being told in this opera, as you may know, which is pretty incredible, but the part with the rats being driven to war is something both touching and insightful, I think.

  7. Robert Johnson
    November 12, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Reverend,

    Firstly, as a veteran I appreciate your speaking on this often ignored subject. I remember all too well being spat upon by the residents of Oakland in 1970 because I was wearing my uniform (yes, that same Oakland that is rioting at the moment because some of the residents did not get their way). My opinion is that the current perpetuation of war is a crime, and to me there is no other description.

    I have two grandsons who are both Marines. One is currently on active duty, the other will pay for his career for the rest of his life: Two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, twice hit by the shrapnel of IED’s, the second time his best friend blown to pieces right next to him, the resulting diagnosed PTSD, etc. You know the story all too well.

    However – “American National Religion” notwithstanding, we should never forget that there is an essential difference between our society and the vast majority of others in this world, and that is the ability to do exactly what you, I, and everyone else in these comments is doing right now: expressing ourselves without (much) fear of retribution
    from an authoritarian and oppressive government. Has our government attempted to compromise or eliminate this right through intimidation, manipulation of the media and the attempted marginalization of dissent? Absolutely, but so far we have maintained possesion. Never, never take that right for granted or assume that it is universal or guaranteed, because it is certainly not. I have worked in countries all over the world and I can assure you of that fact:

    China, 2013:
    Business Associate: “There are a lot of ex-pats in that apartment building.”
    Me: “How can you tell?”
    Business Associate: “There are a lot of satellite dishes on the balconies.”
    Me: “So?”
    Business Associate: “Only foreingers are allowed to have satellite dishes that receive broadcasts from outside China.”

    Try taking your church to Ankara and see what happens. Try the kind of dissent in which we are currently engaged in Moscow and see what happens. Try being a civil rights activist in hundreds of other countries and see what happens.

    The right to dissent has always been paid for in blood, and it always will be – history teaches us that pieces of paper and good intentions are useless to that end. And we must never forget that in some part, large or small, each and every veteran has paid some price to maintain that right of free expression and dissent. Not all sacrifices have been made in vain, and part of every sacrifice has been made to that end. This is not a perfect world.

  8. Christopher
    November 12, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Such a remarkable piece followed by excellent comments. May God bless and keep you all!

  9. robert john grosch
    November 13, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Lost contact with mca people glad u r doing GOds work Doc i,,’m sure is proud

  10. November 14, 2016 at 2:37 am

    @ ” I remember all too well being spat upon by the residents of Oakland in 1970 because I was wearing my uniform (yes, that same Oakland that is rioting at the moment because some of the residents did not get their way).”

    That is garbage you should stop spewing. I passed through Oakland four times in my various trips to and from Viet Nam (the last my return in 1970) wearing my U.S. Army uniform and got nothing but respect and sympathy from the anti-war protesters. The stories of spat-upon Viet Nam War veterans has been rather thoroughly debunked. See e.g., http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/07/03/nobody-spat-on-american-gis/ In fact, the anti-war movement of that era was all too aware that most of our soldiers in Viet Nam were not there by choice, but had been swept up by the Draft. Indeed, there was scarcely a family in America that did not have at least a cousin who had been drafted and sent off to Viet Nam. Nonetheless, that protestors-spitting-at-soldiers myth remains a favorite among those trying to drum up support for U.S. foreign wars as a means of changing the subject.

    @ “And we must never forget that in some part, large or small, each and every veteran has paid some price to maintain that right of free expression and dissent. Not all sacrifices have been made in vain, and part of every sacrifice has been made to that end.”

    Robert, methinks that at the very least you’ve drunk far too deeply from the Kool-Aid of “thank you for your service.” I’m a veteran of 27 months’ combat duty in Viet Nam, plus one day. If you believe that any of the U.S. wars since World War II have had anything at all to do with protecting our rights of freedom of expression and dissent — beyond propaganda purposes — then you have not studied why the U.S. actually goes to war. I have. It’s all about expanding and maintaining the U.S. Empire. See for example, my essay on the history of the wacko U.S. foreign policy that has driven the U.S. to war in Asia and Eurasia since World War II. http://relativelyfreepress.blogspot.com/2015/03/us-russia-and-ukraine-heartland.html

    That empire does not exist for the benefit of our rights of freedom of expression and dissent. It exists to feed the maw of western oligarchs’ lust for wealth and power, of course all wrapped up in patriotic and humanitarian garb to divert the attention of the masses from checking to see if the Emperor actually is wearing any clothes. My wisdom acquired in Viet Nam can be summarized in three statements: [i] reality can be a bitch; [ii] other people’s slogans are seldom if ever worth risking your life for; and [iii] when you find yourself part of an invading army in a foreign land fighting patriots, it’s time to run a reality check on your worldview.

    And the concept of the Dept. of Defense as a bastion of civil rights defense is simply alien to the reality of martial law. That Department punishes those who speak out of turn or dissent.

    When someone hits me with that “thank you for your service” line, I get the urge to grab them by their throat, slam them into the nearest wall, and ask them just what more precisely they meant by throwing that bit of propaganda in my face. It’s a display of incredible ignorance. I wasn’t doing a damned thing for people who say such asinine things by helping kill patriots — and civilians — in Viet Nam. Somewhere between 3 and 5 million Vietnamese people, we killed. And no one has yet put a number on the number of Vietnamese permanently maimed, although it has to be multiples of the number killed. In fact, there are still thousands of Vietnamese being killed every year when “dud” ordnance we strew all over their country finally explodes.

    And can I get medical service from the Department of Veteran Affairs without having to endure that “thank you for your service” insult to my intelligence? No, I get it every time. Unfortunately, that’s where I have to go to get treatment for my multiple “service”-connected disabilities. “Service,” they say! In reality, I was enslaved, given seven weeks “training,” and shipped off to the other side of the world to dodge bullets and kill patriots so the chicken-hawks in Washington, D.C. could brag about being “tough on communism,” whilst fattening their own purses along with their buddies in the military-industrial complex.

    To this day, I’m reminded of what I did and experienced in Viet Nam every time I smell meat being roasted, hear a helicopter fly by, or have an American flag forced within my field of vision. The Fourth of July with its explosions and the smell of gunpowder permeating the atmosphere? That’s the one day of the year when I take tranquilizers. Here, let me show veterans my gratitude by forcing them back into combat hypervigilant mode with some explosions. Fah! And with the memories comes the guilt, because of the things I did, because I survived whilst millions of others did not, and because the utter madness of American foreign wars frustratingly rages on nonetheless.

    “Thank you for your service” is a very sly bit of propaganda. It obligates all non-veterans to mindlessly repeat it lest they be thought insensitive, yet conflates our military’s missions with its former members. But the veteran and his former mission are two quite different things; one is a human being whilst the other was an obligation to kill fellow human beings imposed upon him by chicken-hawk psychopaths who have a knack for attaining powerful positions in government.

    Every now and then someone stumbles along who attempts to grow some feathers on that bit of linguistic trickery by claiming that the American veteran fought to “protect our freedoms” or some other bit of nonsense. But it is a claim that cannot withstand the light of day; there is absolutely no honorable purpose in fighting foreign wars and U.S. foreign wars have nothing to do with protecting our freedoms. They have to do with depriving others of their freedoms and their natural resources and with stuffing dollars into military contractor’s pockets. We were not heroes. At best, we were victims of the chicken hawks yet acted as their hired killers.

    So please, in the future, do not insult the intelligence of veterans by thanking them for their service or feeding them homilies about fighting for our freedoms. It’s a lie and it’s offensive.

  11. Rev. Ukachukwu S.A. Onyeabor
    November 17, 2016 at 9:17 am

    I write to commend Rev. Antal for his courage and straight-facedness in the main article above: talking of dualism and consequent confusion in our society and the world in general. One could notice that very few of the political power-shots have their immediate kit and kin in the Military. An irony. I do appreciate the article in plain truth from the Veteran above, Mr Paul E. Merrell. Truth can always be uncomfortable; but it is what it is.

    I think, today, human beings, through their leaders are ready and willing to self-destruct.

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